Pearson Education, the educational publishing brand, is under fire following a botched series of standardized exam questions now roiling public schools across New York State — and it's only year one of a five-year, $32 million contract between the publisher and the state.
As Gail Collins opined in Sunday's New York Times, it wasn't just the weirdness of the questions — more on that in a moment — but the debate over the commercialization of education and the control of a single brand, in this case Pearson, over kids' futures. Collins wrote, "We have turned school testing into a huge corporate profit center, led by Pearson, for whom $32 million is actually pretty small potatoes. Pearson has a five-year testing contract with Texas that’s costing the state taxpayers nearly half-a-billion dollars."
Pearson was already under fire following a New York State probe into alleged junkets for state education officials. Now, it's back in the headlines after the New York State Education Department alerted school principals earlier this month that its fourth to eighth grade state-wide tests were faulty. Specifically, the eighth-grade test has one question with no correct answer at all, while the fourth-grade exam has one question with two correct answers.
The tests are under tight scrutiny following the discovery that the state’s eighth-grade reading exam included a nonsensical passage from the now infamous “Hare and the Pineapple” problem, based on a nonsensical fable written by popular author Daniel Pinkwater, with a moral (proclaimed by an owl in the story) that “pineapples don’t wear sleeves.”
State education officials have thrown out answers to the six questions related to the “Hare and the Pineapple” problem, as public debate spread after the comprehension questions were published.
Commissioner John King referenced the “ambiguous nature of the test questions,” but added, “Some of the versions of the text that have been circulated on the web exclude the very sentences that are the evidence for the answers to the two questions that have been discussed. The questions make much more sense in the context of the full passage than the excerpts that folks have seen. But given the press coverage we won’t be able to use those particular questions.”
In a separate incident, the state’s fourth-grade reading test included an African folk tale about a talking yam taken from test prep books from Houghton Mifflin and used in city schools that critics feel offered an unfair edge to those students previously exposed.
“That’s very lazy and sloppy on the part of the testing company,” commented education historian Diane Ravitch about the Pearson debacle to the New York Daily News. “Two big mistakes of this kind — the talking pineapple and the talking yam — makes a strong argument for public release of all the test questions.”
Leonie Haimson, the parent activist who broke the “Pineapple” story said in Gotham Schools, “If our children make errors on these high-stakes exams, this will have negative consequences for them, as well as for their teachers and schools. So why should Pearson, which had nearly $2 billion in profits last year, be left off the hook for their sloppy mistakes?”
History appears to be repeating iteself, as Ravitch notes on her blog:
“Ten years ago, the New York State Education Department got embroiled in a very embarrassing scandal. A vigilant parent discovered that many passages on the Regents’ exam in English had been heavily rewritten to remove any references to race, religion, gender, sex, and a bunch of other topics. The parent’s discovery merited a front-page story in the New York Times and caused the State Commissioner of Education to promise that it would never happen again.
Of course, it did happen again. On the very next administration of the Regents, there was a single stanza from Matthew Arnold’s famous poem, “Dover Beach,” not the full four stanzas of the poem. The last stanza begins, “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” but the state changed it to, “Ah, friend, let us be true to one another.”
How soon they forget. Now with the Pineapple story, we learn that they never stopped meddling with the text of passages. They can’t help themselves. They think they can write better than Elie Wiesel, better than Isaac Bashevis Singer, better than Daniel Pinkwater.
The moral of the story: Accountability begins at the top.”